(Photos: Yuzuru Sunada)
Cadel Evans is set to become the first Australian winner of the Tour de France after overcoming his overnight deficit to Andy Schleck in the penultimate stage time trial Saturday. BMC leader Evans started the 42.5 km race against the clock with a 57sec deficit to Schleck in the overall standings but easily erased that on his way to second place behind stage winner Tony Martin of Germany.
It means Evans will go into Sunday's final stage, a 95 km run from Creteil to Paris which is traditionally not disputed by the overall contenders, as the new race champion.
"I can't quite believe I've done it," said Evans, who was applauded by hundreds of his flag-waving compatriots after he pulled on the yellow jersey for the first time in the race.
"It's an incredible day for us, for Cadel and for the sport in general," added BMC team manager Jim Ochowicz.
Evans, the runner-up in 2007 and 2008, will succeed Spain's three-time champion Alberto Contador, who suffered a dramatic collapse in the penultimate stage Thursday to all but drop out of contention.
HTC-Highroad's specialist Martin, who had started earlier in the day when the course was still drying after a spell of rain, clocked a winning time of
"After I saw that I couldn't follow the best (overall) riders in the mountains my only goal was to win this time trial," said Martin, who won on
the exact same course when it was staged on the Criterium du Dauphine last month. "For me, it's a really nice way to finish the race."
Evans finished only seven seconds behind in 55:40 while Schleck could only come over the finish line in 17th place in 58:11. Contador finished third on the stage at 1:06 behind Martin, one place ahead of Belgian surprise package Thomas De Gendt and two ahead of another Australian, Saxo Bank teammate Richie Porte.
Evans, the 2009 world champion, now has a comfortable lead of 1:34 on Andy Schleck, while his older brother Frank Schleck will finish third overall at 2:30.
"I'm quite disappointed because I wanted to win this Tour but I'm still only 26 and I will be back to win it," said Andy, who applauded Evans's effort.
"Cadel raced the time trial of his life." Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, who gave up possession of the yellow jersey to Schleck only on Friday after 10 days in the lead, is fourth overall at 3:20 with Contador fifth at 3:57.
After his dramatic collapse on Thursday, Giro d'Italia champion Contador had produced one last classy attack on the Alpe d'Huez Friday, only to finish third on the stage. In the end, his sports director at Saxo Bank, Brad McGee, applauded Evans' efforts over the campaign.
"I know how big it is for Australia to have a Tour de France winner and Cadel (Evans) truly deserves this win," said McGee, a former stage winner and wearer of the race's yellow jersey. "He has been working extremely hard to achieve this for so long and I can't do anything other than congratulate for a job well done."
Evans, who was the first Australian to lead the Giro d'Italia, in 2002, had lost both the 2007 and 2008 Tours after penultimate stage time trials, to Contador and fellow Spaniard Carlos Sastre respectively. But amid his most solid campaign on the world's premier cycling event the Australian quickly put his team's fears to bed when he passed the first time check 36secs faster than Andy Schleck. By the 27 km mark the Australian had become the virtual race leader with a lead of nearly two minutes on Schleck, who 10 km further on was 2:12 down on the Australian.
Schleck battled to the end, but the Luxemburger - who had said at the start of the race he would win the Tour in the mountains - will have to settle for a third consecutive runner-up place.